By Achnasheen, Wester Ross (01445 700300, www.thetorridon.com)
Five courses, plus coffee and petits fours £55
The place is stunning. Not just the usual wow-look-at-that-view gorgeous, but the sort of place that takes your breath away.
“It looks like a fairytale castle,” said one young English girl whose family had arrived at the same time as us as she looked up at its red-hewn baronial features. She had a point; well, about the fairytale stuff anyway, because with its backdrop of glowering hills, tree-lined shore, croquet lawn and views over Loch Torridon, the hotel has an almost ethereal quality. That said, it’s not a castle, it’s a baronial pastiche chucked up by the Earl of Lovelace – a scion of a family of Exeter grocers done good – at the height of Empire.
Back then they knew how to do pomp and circumstance, and the whole place is remarkably opulent. Wood-lined walls with meaningful Latin phrases that skirt below the cornicing (at least I presume they’re meaningful; I’m a Philistine who never got past learning the school motto), intricate wooden marquetry hangs like spiders’ webs on the ceiling, stags’ heads line the walls and I’d wager a fair amount of cash that the big rug in the entrance hall is worth more than the combined yardage of scratchy carpets Chez Bath. The place is like a hunting lodge designed by Versace, and just to complete the picture, there’s a maroon helicopter sitting on the lawn, buffed up to within an inch of its existence.
The service is efficient and slick, and within seconds of arriving we’d been ushered through to the drawing room for some sotto voce chat. Like the American on the nearby sofa, who quickly clocked the whisky bar next door and spent ten minutes studying its 350 bottles in shocked awe before being reeled in by his wife, it didn’t take a great mental leap to realise this is somewhere you could easily while away an evening in lofty contemplation, especially as the huge windows give a fantastic view down the loch.
But then, just as the pre-dinner gin and tonic and a fantastic amuse bouche of pork bon bon and steamed apple on a crouton finally disappeared, we were ushered through to a rather formal and predictably sumptuous dining room, with yet another Latin inscription.
I’d long been keen to try The Torridon, which is the current AA Scottish Hotel of the Year, and in particular to try the three-rosette food of Bruno Birkbeck. The Torridon’s head chef has some truly amazing produce to hand, ranging from their own herd of Highland cattle and a superb walled garden, to the wild fare from the hills and nearby seas, and has developed a reputation for producing innovative yet accessible menus.
Our five-course meal started with a combination of goat’s cheese and beetroot, which worked well enough, and then moved quickly through the gears with a second course of Isle of Ewe smoked salmon ravioli, à la grecque vegetables and a beetroot dressing. Happily I love beetroot, but I’m not the biggest fan of mildly cloying ravioli, which is what this was.
That said, Bea was in raptures over her main course of pan-fried seabream with herb gnocchi, butternut squash and purée and a nicely nuanced red wine dressing. Simple but faultless, it was exactly what was required to showcase the outstanding ingredients of the area. Sadly, my roast breast of Barbary duck didn’t follow suit: every accompaniment, from the beautifully unctuous confit shallot tart to the commendably punchy green peppercorn sauce was spot-on, but the main event, the slices of duck, were curiously tough.
Birkbeck was back on form with a well-judged palate-cleansing vanilla condé (basically a smart rice pudding) with mango sorbet, which I followed with a pudding of glazed banana and chocolate bread with caramel mousse, peanut cannelloni and peanut brittle. Disassembled and artfully arranged, this looked so exquisite I wasn’t sure whether to eat it or frame it, and it almost seemed a shame to do the former. Bea had no qualms about getting stuck into what turned out to be an epic cheeseboard, which featured Clava brie, Inverloch goat’s cheese and Lanark blue, plus the super-mature Welsh cheddar-style Snowdonia Black Bomber and the gloriously tangy French offering Pont L’Eveque. It was, she reckoned, as good as any she’d had all year.
And with that we were back in the drawing room, slurping coffee so strong you could stand a spoon up in it, squabbling over the ornate petits fours and wondering whether either of us fancied not drinking so that the other could sample the whisky bar before the drive home (answer: an emphatic no). Still, on a late summer night, who needs whisky when you’ve got a view like that to sustain you?
If the whole place is immaculate, or as Bea put it “shabby chic without the shabby”, it all comes at quite a cost. If the view would bring a tear to a glass eye, so would unwittingly glimpsing the bill. Still, with rooms that go up to £465 a night in high season, a set menu at £55 is probably par for the course – and you can’t put a value on a vista like that.